ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Records reveal the Albuquerque Police, the largest police department in New Mexico, has been involved in hundreds of lawsuits in the last decade. And whether through settlements or hours worked by professional staff, each lawsuit costs taxpayers.
To examine the scope and cost of allegations against the Albuquerque Police, KRQE News 13 compiled public records and examined court cases over the last decade. The data reveals that the city has been involved in hundreds of lawsuits and paid out over $68 million worth of taxpayer funds to settle lawsuits related to APD since 2012.
Over the last ten years, the city has made more than 200 payouts connected to lawsuits and complaints involving APD, according to KRQE News 13’s analysis of litigation reports. Most of those payments were settlements, meaning that APD and the city didn’t necessarily admit fault, but decided to pay to simply close the matter. However, some of the cost the department’s incurred has come in the form of judgements from the court.
Some of the settlements in APD’s lawsuits have been massive. In 2015, the city paid out over $6 million to the family of Christopher Torres. APD officers shot Torres to death during a scuffle in April 2011. Torres, who suffered from schizophrenia, was under investigation for an alleged road rage incident. Two plain clothes detectives confronted Torres in his backyard when the shooting occurred.
In 2016, the city paid out $6.5 million after an officer shot a fellow officer. Lieutenant Greg Brachle shot Detective Jacob Grant almost 10 times during an undercover police operation. Grant survived.
In 2014, the city paid out $7.95 million after an APD officer killed an Iraq War veteran. The veteran, Kenneth Ellis III, was reportedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and was threatening suicide when APD detective Brett Lampiris-Tremba shot Ellis in the neck.
In 2017, the city paid out its largest settlement of the last decade: $8.5 million for a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Ashley Browder. In February 2013, off-duty APD officer Adam Casaus sped through a red light, crashing his police vehicle into another car. The crash killed 21-year-old Browder and permanently injured Browder’s sister.
These sorts of big payouts come directly from taxpayer funds, according to Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesperson for APD. He says Albuquerque does not have a commercial law enforcement liability policy. KRQE News 13 reached out to the city’s Legal Department and Finance Department to confirm this, but never received a response from those departments.
On top of the actual payouts, handling claims against the department requires the city employ attorneys. This, of course, also costs taxpayers.
Fewer big payouts recently
Many of the largest payouts for APD lawsuits were to settle matters that occurred over a decade ago, and often tied to high-profile wrongful death or civil rights cases. But since then, APD has been working on reforming police policy, training, and use of force as part of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. So has the litigation and settlements stopped as the department has made changes?
Not entirely. But APD does claim that reform is working as proven by a reduction in lawsuits against the Albuquerque Police Department.
“The city has seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of money paid to settle police-related lawsuits,” APD spokesperson Rebecca Atkins told KRQE News 13. “Fewer lawsuits coincide with APD’s reform efforts the overhaul of its use of force policies, more training and higher standards.”
Data compiled by the city does show that the sum of police-related payouts has dropped over the last few years. As has the number of lawsuits filed against the city (not just APD) as a whole.
But whether or not the changes are due to improvements at APD is unclear, because while litigation against APD reportedly declined, all civil litigation filed in Bernalillo County District Court declined also, according to data from the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Still, some changes could be cutting down on high-risk activities that lead to lawsuits. For example, Atkins from APD points out that the purchase of a new helicopter in 2020, along with other new technology, should help cut down on high-risk car chases.
Certainly neither litigation nor payouts have stopped, although there haven’t been any multi-million-dollar payouts in a few years. It’s worth noting that publicly available litigation reports likely do not include all settlements, meaning it’s difficult to compute exactly how payouts have changed over time. Still, settlement money continues to flow.
In 2022, the city paid out $750,000 for a 2019 police chase that resulted in a teenage pedestrian, Manny Tapia, being hit and killed by a truck. The family of 15-year-old Tapia claimed the officers involved in the pursuit failed to follow procedure and kept chasing the truck after Tapia was struck.
And it’s not just tragic deaths and injuries that result in payouts. Many of the lawsuits against APD over the years have been public records lawsuits.
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One of the latest lawsuits against APD comes from the aunt of a 15-year-old who died in a house fire likely sparked by a police tri-chamber flameless gas-irritant grenade during a SWAT operation. An autopsy showed that Brett Rosenau is suspected to have died of smoke inhalation during the July 2022 SWAT call and fire.
Shawnie Skinner, who identifies as the aunt of the victim alleges that the police department is not being transparent and not giving her access to requested public records tied to the incident. Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan Watson told KRQE News 13 that “the Clerk’s Office is working diligently to fulfill the request and communicate with the requestor.” The lawsuit is pending.
These sorts of public records lawsuits make up a relatively small portion of the total settlements related to APD, but according to one local lawyer, they reflect a key metric of policing.
“The amount of public records request a given entity gets is essentially like a variable or coefficient of how much trust there is between the public and that institution,” said Thomas Grover, an Albuquerque attorney who has previously filed public records lawsuits. “If there’s not a whole lot of trust, there’s gonna be a lot of people doing it for requests because they want to validate or confirm what’s being represented to them.”
A review of the city’s litigation reports shows 18 public records lawsuits against APD that resulted in settlements since 2012. The city, as a whole, received over 10,000 records requests last year, according to City Clerk Watson. Those come from a range of citizens, lawyers, and journalists and represent inquiries into many different city departments.
How does Albuquerque compare?
As noted earlier, Albuquerque has paid out over $68 million worth of taxpayer funds to settle lawsuits related to APD over the last decade. That’s enough to give every full-time Albuquerque police officer a $6,000 raise for 10 years. But is that more than other cities pay out in settlements?
“It’s hard to quantify,” says Grover. “The best analysis would be a comparable city to Albuquerque.” But because each city and each law enforcement department is unique, there’s no perfect comparison.
Data compiled by news group Five Thirty Eight and The Marshall Project show that some cities have paid out more than Albuquerque over a similar amount of time. For example, Philadelphia paid out more than $116 million over 11 years. And Chicago paid out more than $467 million over 10 years. But those cities – and their police forces – are much larger than Albuquerque, not to mention they have different crimefighting policies.
The data does suggest, however, that Albuquerque is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to police-related settlements. In a decade, the city paid out more than Milwaukee, San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston, Miami, New Orleans, or Cincinnati, over similar amounts of time, according to data from Five Thirty Eight and The Marshall Project.
Part of the reason Albuquerque sticks out, according to Grover, may be its administrative structure. Albuquerque is a stand-alone entity, Grover explains. “And as such, I think they’re going to be on the hook for liability more often than those municipalities that are part of a greater metropolitan area.”
Still, Grover says that alone doesn’t account for all the settlements. “If the City did everything right all the time, it generally wouldn’t have any liability or exposure,” Grover says. “There’s always going to be a occasion where something happens . . . it’s just the nature of being a municipality that there are going to be things that happen that cause people injuries . . . but there’s a lot of unforced errors that the city perpetually commits, that keep me and other attorneys busy.”
Do settlements bring change?
Police-related settlements have several key roles. First and foremost, they offer monetary compensation for alleged victims. Money can’t make up for a lost life, but it can help families cover necessary costs.
But beyond the money, does taking on the police in court tend to bring about systematic change? From the data, it’s not entirely clear; many settlements over the years are the result of similar, repeated allegations. For example, APD settled public records lawsuits in fiscal years 2012, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022, the data reveals. And they settled moving vehicle accident claims every year for the last 10 years.
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Adam Flores, an attorney who has been involved in litigation against APD, says that lawsuits and settlements do have an effect on police behavior, to a degree. But the impact is subject to the requirement that the “city or the agency itself, responding to these things actually care about what happens,” Flores says. “In some cases, they do.” And as a result, officers are sometimes disciplined, Flores says.
Some settlements do clearly bring policy change as well. Take for example the previously mentioned Casaus-Browder case. That not only resulted in a multi-million-dollar payout, but also a requirement affecting every single Albuquerque Police vehicle.
As part of the settlement, the city agreed to place “How’s my driving? Call 311” notices on all APD patrol vehicles. Public records obtained by KRQE News 13 shows that since then, around 200 driving complaints against APD have been submitted. The settlement also included an agreement for APD to revamp driver training for its incoming police cadets.
Still, Flores says repeated allegations against APD can be disheartening. “It’s frustrating to me to see the same problems over and over,” he says.